Bottom line: Elizabeth calls Mary "Mother of my Lord." In the ancient world, the mother of a ruler had an influence which a mother in a similar position would not have today.
Once someone asked why we Catholics put so much emphasis on Mary. "After all," the person said, "she is only the mother of Jesus." Now, this objection can appear somewhat humorous. To be the mother of Jesus, who is God and Savior of the World, is something pretty special, don't you think?
Even though the objection is off target, it does point to a problem that we have today in understanding Mary. For us the role of a mother is much less than in former times. In the ancient world - the world in which the Bible was written - a mother had a significant role not only when her children were small, but also after they became adults. Today, once a child reaches maturity, the mother tends to stand back. She does not want to "meddle" in the lives of her adult children. Although a bond of affection usually continues to exist, a mother will stay out the affairs of a grown up son or daughter.
This diminished role is particularly the case if one’s child has an official public position. An insider's book on the presidency of George W. Bush illustrates the very limited role a mother has today. According to the book, Barbara Bush was quite concerned that her son would get involved in a war with Iraq.* Even though she visited the White House and gave a light hearted speech at a social event, she did not say anything directly to her son about Iraq.
Now, for us today, that seems natural. Just because the president happens to be her son, Barbara Bush has no business meddling in national affairs. We take that for granted. But it was not so in ancient times. A mother, especially the mother of ruler, had a significant role.
We can see that in the book of Kings. When David was king, his wife Bathsheba stayed in the background. However, when David died and their son, Solomon, assumed the throne, things changed. When David was king, Bathsheba would prostrate herself when she came into the king’s presence. However, when her son Solomon became king, it was he who bowed before his mother. (Compare 1K 1:16 and 2:19) She was the Queen Mother. As mother of the lord and ruler of Israel, she had a powerful role.**
In today's Gospel, Elizabeth says, "How does this happen to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?" That title “mother of my Lord” has a rich, Old Testament background. It signifies a role of great influence. Mary is mother of our Lord, the ruler of heaven and earth.***
Now, Mary is not "only the mother of Jesus." She is the daughter of Israel and daughter of God the Father. She is the spouse of Joseph and spouse of the Holy Spirit. But even if she were only the mother of Jesus, that would in itself be more than enough to make us want her intercession. Like St. Elizabeth, we can affectionately call her mother of our Lord. And we confidently ask her intercession. As we celebrate this last Sunday of Advent, with the celebration of Christ’s birth so near, we ask the mother of Jesus to pray for us.
*The book is State of Denial by Bob Woodward.
**I am not arguing for or against our modern system. And, even if it were possible, I'm not saying we should return to the old ways where the mother of a ruler had great power. I'm only pointing out that that was the way it was. If we are going to understand the Bible, we have to read it in light of how things were in the ancient world - and at that time a mother, especially the mother of sovereign, had enormous influence. In the case of President George W. Bush, he certainly would have done well to have heard his mother’s concern and taken it seriously. I'm saying this based on the assumption that Woodward's book on the Bush presidency is half-way accurate - something I don't know, although I do know that Pope John Paul II did try to communicate a similar concern. At the same time, I am a firm believer that once a baby comes into existence, no matter how it happens, the parents (and the rest of the society) have a responsibility to care for the child. The Iraq mess is ours and, at this point, we cannot just throw up our hands and walk away.
Another man would have done well to have listened to his mother. Here is what Lawrence Wright says about Osama bin Laden's fatal decision to go to Afganistan:
He (Osama) would have to defy another authority as well, which was even more difficult for him. His mother forbade him to go. He begged her permission, saying that he would be going there only to take care of the families of mujahideen. He said he would call her every day. Finally he promised, "I won't even get near Afghanistan." (The Looming Tower, p. 98)
***Acts 1:14 gives us an indication of Mary's place in the early Church. After giving a list of the Eleven, Luke names "Mary the Mother of Jesus" as part of that praying community.
From Archives (Homilies for Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (35th Anniversary thank-you's, Simbang Gabi, Recommendations: Nativity Story and Thrill of the Chaste, Upcoming Events)
Pictures from the Mañanitas
(December 11, 2006; Holy Family Parish)
Fr. Thomas Euteneuer's review of The Nativity:
The Nativity Story, has received many positive reviews around the country already and also a fair number of attacks by the standard group of village atheists. Criticisms notwithstanding, the movie certainly has many redeeming qualities to it including its portrayal of Joseph and the touching scene of Mary's visit to Elizabeth, but at the same time I feel it necessary to correct the record about its presentation of Mary.